Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
It's 8am on a Saturday morning and I'm just settling into my seat on the red-eye from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly. My friend Andrew Drinkwater, who has spent the last few weeks brewing at Weird Beard cracks a wry smile as the bottle of beer in his hand opens with a hiss. I reassure myself that this is fine because a) it's a coffee IPA and b) the silently agreed rules for drinking only after the horse has cleared the yard arm do not apply when you're on a train.
The beer is called 'Out of Office', it was brewed by Andrew with Chris Taylor of the most excellent home brewing duo Crema Brewery and it is wonderful. Imagine a really good American IPA, all citrus and pine with a distinctive, pithy orange note from Amarillo hops running through the middle. Then add in a twist of coffee bitterness but one that is nuanced and controlled. It's pretty much the perfect breakfast beer which is reassuring when pairing it with my croissant and bonafide cup of joe. Not one to spoil the party, once Out of Office is emptied I produce a giant can of Oskar Blues Dales Pale Ale from my bag and begin decanting it into our emptied coffee cups. We were setting ourselves up for a big day out, although perhaps not very sensibly, because we were heading to a beer festival which I then planned to follow with a pub crawl.
Now in it's third year The Independent Manchester Beer Convention is something of a game-changer and its shortened name, IndyManBeerCon is spoken among beer geeks with an almost hushed reverence. It appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 2012 and presented an experience that demonstrated beer festivals needn't be about swilling pints from over-temperature, under-conditioned casks. It brought with it the opportunity to experience a multitude of flavours and take in a bewildering amount of beer in a short space of time and to add to the sense of occasion it is held within the inspiringly beautiful Victoria Baths.
There was one problem though, I'd never actually been, instead having to experience it through a string of excellent blog posts almost universally singing the festivals various praises. I say almost because like with any aspect of beer culture IndyManBeerCon has its doubters. I put both arguments out of my mind when I joined the queue outside the baths which quickly started to lengthen behind me. The ten minutes I had to wait for the doors to be flung open seemed like an age. I was desperate to get my hands on a beer, especially as the effects of the first two were rapidly wearing off. Thankfully my prayers were soon answered and I made my way inside. I dropped my bag in the cloakroom, purchased a fistful of tokens and approached the nearest bar only to be greeted by Buxton Brewery's Colin Stronge who duly topped up my glass with his Jaw Gate pale ale.
This was the first thing that IndyManBeerCon brought to the table when it established itself three years ago. Beer served by the people that made it, gifting an opportunity to the drinker to actually communicate about how what's in their glass came into being. This is good for both parties, the consumer gets to meet the people that make their favourite beverage, breaking down barriers and increasing transparency which is very much at the crux of what craft beer is. For the brewer, they get a chance for immediate feedback from their customers and are given an opportunity to build a relationship with them, ensuring of their continued business if done properly. It's a win/win situation.
I knew a lot of people who were at the festival, some were now old friends and some I met for the first time but the sense of community within the walls of the baths was incredible. I tried to divide my time between as many people as possible while endeavouring to make sure my glass was always topped up which led to a lot of wandering around the beautiful surroundings of the baths by myself. There were three main spaces each with the bar being in a disused swimming pool and plenty of long tables littered around the place. These ranged from the cosy, dark space occupied by Magic Rock, which also had a stage for some live music (although I did not see any on the Saturday afternoon session I attended) to the bright, spacious hall sponsored by Summer Wine Brewery.
There was more to it than just these three excellent spaces, outdoors was an area where Brewdog had literally parked the bus. One negative here was that it took me two hours to actually find this space as it was poorly signposted. Admittedly I only found it when I actually went looking for it but if I hadn't have known it was there I would've struggled to come across it. Near the entrance were the glorious turkish baths where Beavertown had taken residence and had managed to get the party started despite it being 11am and appearing to be nursing stonking hangovers. Behind this was yet another room where Manchester's Port Street Beer House had set up a bar across from another that seemed to be dealing exclusively in brain jarringly good beers from Italy.
And what of the beers? That was arguably the main reason I was here after all. Well Summer Wine's 'Twiggy' all-English hopped IPA was a refreshing, marmalade-y treat. Beavertown impressed me with their 'Earl Phantom' Berliner Weisse which combined just the right amount of lactic sourness, citric tang and tannic bite. Brewdog's delicious CapDog proved that their bite is very much as good as their bark and Quantum's Brett C Pale demonstrated a masterful use of wild yeast in a hoppy pale ale. The beer to rule them all though was not limited edition or constructed especially to impress at an event such as this, it was a core beer from one of the North's most loved breweries. Magic Rock Cannonball reminded me that it is still the best American style IPAs being brewed on this side of the Atlantic. It is the only beer of the day that demanded I went back for a second pour.
The food was excellent too with plenty of stands littered around the place selling the usual burgers and hot dogs. However it was the fish tacos from Margo & Rita that piqued my interest the most and this was the second tasty example of something that's usually better on the other side of the pond that I experienced at the festival. It was the perfect beer snack and only a fiver for two tacos, paired with a slightly disappointing Thornbridge Twin Peaks that I bought purely to celebrate the news that the iconic show is returning for a third series. Sadly it just wasn't hoppy enough to sate my Lynchian lust but damn, those tacos were good.
The gathered throng was perfectly sized and the crowds seemed to ebb and flow through each room in harmonious union. This session was sell out but I never once waited for more than a minute at a bar and most of that time was spent deciding what to actually order. I went into IndyMan completely blind, I had not looked at a beer list, I had no specific beers I wanted to tick. I just wanted to drink some great beer with some great people and have the best time I possibly could. I managed to the extent that I would say it's probably the best beer festival experience I've ever had.
IndyMan is an excellent representation of the changing face of the British beer scene, so much so that it has gone on to inspire similar events such as Craft Beer Rising and The London Craft Beer Festival. It is as bright, clean and modern as many of the beers they bring to the festival itself with its location being a nod to tradition. It is not for everyone but then that was never the point. What IndyMan brings is an alternative. Just as the punk rockers of the late 70's brought something brash and new to the tide of prog that dominated the British rock scene at the time, IndyMan brings the antithesis to the British festival scene, festival being the key word. This was a celebration of beer with an infectious, carnival atmosphere. It's easy enough to go to an excellent pub with a massive range of beer on tap these days, just look at Brewdog Shepherds Bush with its 40 plus taps for example but going to the pub doesn't bring with it the sense of occasion you feel when at a beer festival such as IndyMan.
I felt that by paying thirteen pounds for a ticket and twenty pounds for my beer once inside that I was getting excellent value for money considering the beers available and the fact I got to chat to the people that brewed them. It's far from perfect, there probably isn't enough focus on cask beer for a British festival, there wasn't an obvious place to get water and they weren't plentiful enough and it took me an hour to find the toilet of which again there weren't enough of. However it was bloody brilliant and I'd go again in a heartbeat. In fact the biggest problem I had with the Independent Manchester Beer Convention was that I only went to a single session, something that will be rectified when I return next year.